by Dr. Klaus M Blache

Where do reliability engineers come from? To address this, we need to start with a few definitions, then reliability engineering can be best explained by listing some examples of what reliability engineering can do towards improving your operations.

Although I will use the term “reliability engineer,” I am referring to both reliability and maintainability engineering. In practice, it’s often the same person, so my examples and discussion will be regarding both practices.

Reliability is: “The likelihood that process/product/people will carry out their stated function for the specified time interval when operated according to the designed conditions.”

Reliability is usually expressed as a percent probability. I believe it is important to include “people reliability” in the definition. Also, “process” refers to the entire system, including machinery, equipment, operations and engineering processes. Reliability is usually expressed as mean time between failure (MTBF).

Maintainability is: “The ease and speed of maintenance to get the system back to its original operating condition.”

Maintainability should be designed in to reduce service and repair time. It is usually expressed in hours as mean time to repair (MTTR). The outcome of good reliability and maintainability is “availability.”

Availability is: “Being ready for use as intended.”

Availability is typically measured as a percent of time that machinery/equipment works when needed. This can be an actual value or a calculated probability.

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These are the basic definitions of reliability, maintainability and availability. But, what does a reliability engineer do? This professional’s primary role is to evaluate and manage system (process, product and people) reliability risks. For many, this is mostly a focus on physical assets (building, machinery and equipment). For others, it’s about the product.

A good reliability engineer understands total productive maintenance (TPM), can use analysis tools (e.g., Weibull, root cause analysis, fault tree and reliability modeling), and has a knowledge of the production system and product. It’s not surprising that reliability engineers are in high demand. There are many individuals with the title “reliability engineer,” but are only performing a fraction of the full skill set. Most discussions regarding the role of reliability engineer fall into three categories.

Design in and continuous improvement to:

  1. Reduce risks and losses;
  2. Manage assets based on lifecycle (total cost);
  3. Partner with operations, engineering and maintenance to enable practicable problem solving.

Pay close attention to item number three because my studies with over 300 facilities worldwide have shown that by getting workforce buy-in for a change, you are seven times more likely to be successful.

Typical examples of what a reliability engineer can do include:

  • Develop a reliability and maintainability (R&M) plan with measurable goals.
  • Data analysis, trending and other data mining to find solutions to chronic problems.
  • Manage asset risk as related tohealth, safety and environment (HES), production, quality, regulatory compliance and cost.
  • Be an integral part of the design, installation and buy off of assets - for new assets and major changes to assets. This is important because over 90 percent of the lifecycle cost is decided early in a project.
  • Work with the ergonomics or industrial engineer to improve maintainability using human factors.
  • Take a systems-thinking approach (machinery, equipment, controls, processes, utilities, safety, environmental, people and more) to ensure reliability.
  • Monitor production and maintenance losses to improve throughput and reduce cost (reduce MTTR, increase MTBF and improve availability).
  • Conduct a failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA).
  • Establish test procedures and perform reliability testing.
  • Perform maintainability prediction calculation and demonstration.
  • Develop and implement R&M specifications for purchasing.
  • Apply R&M concepts to meet R&M design requirements.
  • Perform reliability modeling to make trade-off decisions (what to implement).
  • Help design a product for easy maintenance (easy disassembly, standardized parts, mistake proofing, etc).
  • Evaluate field data for R&M improvement.
  • Specify maintainability targets for assets, products, or their components.
  • Provide a R&M checklist for buying off on asset purchases.
  • Use R&M analysis tools to identify low reliability and high level of maintenance components/tasks to enable redesign of selecting other approaches.
  • Uses historical maintenance data, production data, safety data and other sources to deliver a comprehensive strategy for improvements.
  • Protects people from unexpected outcomes.
  • Guides implementation of reliability-centered maintenance (RCM) strategies.
  • Reviews maintenance requirements from the machine supplier.
  • Performs analysis for make-buy, repair–replace and redesign.
  • Analyzes preliminary engineering design concepts of naval vessel, aircraft and ground vehicles for operational R&M. Recommends needed testing/validation.
  • Understands the workings of the software reliability of programs and control systems.
  • Considers the impact of an aging workforce when doing analysis of maintainability.
  • Evaluates a situation and knows whether or not to use maintenance predictive technologies, condition based monitoring, time based intervention, or run to failure.

This list can go on and on, but it also reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of the term reliability engineer. As a strength, it takes into consideration all of the aspects that influence asset, uptime and production readiness, as well as delivering products that are reliable and maintainable.

This requires many other parts of the organization (maintenance, operations, engineering, quality, HES, etc.) and leveraging data tools and techniques that are also used by those organizations. That a reliability engineer touches so many areas brings variation to our understanding of what an R&M engineer is and does.

Some factories are using technicians/skilled trades to perform specific R&M tasks, which is good for plant floor buy-in and brings good experience. However, it’s important that the big picture of total factory and product R&M strategies be developed (reliability roadmap), communicated and implemented.

In my automotive management days, this was done by a manufacturing engineer, in which R&M was included in the job description (responsible for throughput, removing bottlenecks and increasing throughput). Because of the depth of knowledge and the experience needed, many companies advertise for a specific reliability engineer – electrical, mechanical, nuclear, medical, paper mill, coal, etc. Beyond the core R&M skills and knowledge (R&M concepts, tools and techniques), it requires practical experience and lots of it.

So back to the original question: “Where do reliability engineers come from?” An ideal reliability engineer needs to have:

  1. A solid engineering background;
  2. A good overall background in R&M
  3. Practical experience.

Typically, when you hire an engineer from a university, you only get one of the three needed ingredients. If you use a person with plant experience (but not an engineer), again, you typically only get one of the three needed ingredients. Some companies are training groups of engineers on R&M because the large number needed is not readily available (and they are already starting with two of the ingredients).

To address this, the College of Engineering at The University of Tennessee (UT) and its Reliability and Maintainability Center (RMC) offer programs for engineers and technicians/skilled trades to fill this gap. Since 1996, the RMC has existed to advance reliability and maintainability education and practices within the industrial and academic communities.

The UT-RMC model is focused on providing both knowledge and experience. The key is knowing both what to do and how (actually performing the skills or tasks).

“It’s not what you know, but what you do with that knowledge that’s important. It’s the ability to analyze, problem solve, apply and implement that brings value to the R&M profession.”

Where Industry and Academia Meet for R&M

When deciding on a reliability engineering career or searching for one, know what you want to beable to do upon completion.

For example:

  • If you are interested in management and it will advance your career area of interest, then follow a degree program path.
  • If you are a highly technical person and will be making high risk decisions in R&M, then follow a degree program and specialize in the analytical tools of choice.
  • If you are an engineer (not pursuing a graduate degree), technician, or skilled tradesperson needing R&M knowledge and wanting to get more training and be recognized, then take a professional development path. Get a certificate that has both a training and implementation component. Decide in advance if you are looking for a broad R&M background or want to learn in-depth in a specific area.
    • What must you learn to perform your job better?
    • Do you want a university degree or certificate?
    • What new R&M knowledge and skills do you want to learn?
    • What do you want to be able to do with new knowledge and skills?

Know whether or not you are interested in college credit (degree program) or professional development (certificate). There are plenty of programs that sound like you may be eligible for more, but remember it’s either a university degree or a certificate (regardless of the name of it). Both have their purpose and are valuable based on individual need.

Below is an overview schematic of a current program that offers a R&M learning path for trades/technicians, students, engineers and managers. The focus is on both knowledge and experience, resulting in practitioners/problem solvers.

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Figure 1: University of Tennessee and Reliability & Maintainability Center RME program

I have never seen the industry demand for R&M knowledge and engineers higher than it is now. Similarly, more students are becoming aware of the opportunities resulting from a RME education and experience. The spring 2013 maintainability course (required for a RME minor) had 112 students. Also, about 10 percent of the May 2013 College of Engineering graduates will have earned a RME minor with their bachelor of science in engineering degree.

Part 2 of this article will provide more details regarding the reliability and Maintainability education, company training, professional development, summer internships and more.

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